Buffalo’s murky teacher pact

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-3-39-16-pmSome of New York’s worst tendencies in bargaining with government unions were on display yesterday in Buffalo—even before the school board illegally took things behind closed doors.

The school district announced Sunday that, after more than a decade of bargaining, it had reached a tentative agreement with the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF). But the terms of the agreement were kept secret even after the school board met at 4pm Monday to discuss it, with members voting to go into executive session outside of public view.

Taxpayers weren’t given a chance to see the contract, let alone get an objective analysis of its costs, ahead of the board’s vote to accept it. This wasn’t just disrespectful of the taxpayers who will have to pay for the contract: as The Buffalo News correctly pointed out ahead of time, the district violated the Open Meetings Law.

State law doesn’t require any proactive disclosure in contract proceedings, as we explained in this 2008 report, but the contract wasn’t so much as posted on the district’s website. Instead, photos of the contract were leaked on Twitter by a Buffalo News reporter, around the same time the school board came out of its executive session to quickly vote, 7 to 2, to ratify the deal.

Unfortunately for Buffalo taxpayers, the union effectively had seats on both sides of the table, having spent heavily in the school board races earlier this year and six of the nine current members having received union support in their campaigns.

That showed through in the final product. The deal is expected to add more than $98 million to district costs over the next three years, although the district had set aside only $65 million to cover all of its pending labor negotiations. Those figures are from news reports: as usual in such cases, the proposed contract was not accompanied by any detailed rundown of fiscal implications. It’s also not clear whether that $98 million figure includes added pension costs, which this year will come to $1.72 million for every $10 million in added teacher pay.

While the district won a longer school day (7 hours, 15 minutes, up from 6 hours, 50 minutes) and added one teaching day to the school year, it didn’t achieve any structural changes: a teacher’s seniority will still be weighed more heavily than his or her actual effectiveness, and teachers will still be paid on “steps” that allow for automatic pay raises for decades after contracts expire. Though wages were frozen between 2004 and 2007 by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, step increases resumed thereafter. Including steps in the contract greatly reduces future incentive for the union to negotiate, meaning the district has set itself up for a repeat episode after the new contract expires in three years.

Buffalo teachers will now, like most people in the private sector, pay toward their health insurance, but instead of a percentage, the contribution will top out at $600 for individuals and $1,500 for a family plan—effectively less than 10 percent of plan costs, which will continue to increase. By comparison, under contracts negotiated with Governor Cuomo, unionized state government employees are required to pay up to 16 percent of the cost of individual coverage and up to 31 percent of dependent coverage.

All teachers are getting immediate 10 percent raises, as well as bonuses. Raises they were already scheduled to receive (thanks to step increases) will be bumped up by 2 percent in each of the next school years.

It’s worth noting that, thanks to the Triborough Amendment, virtually every teacher continued receiving raises under the expired contract after the wage freeze ended in 2007: looking at pay data for the 2,310 New York State Teachers Retirement System members who worked for the district in both school years 2007-08 and 2015-16, their combined pay increased 33 percent over eight years. While the figure includes some school administrators, it’s a general reminder that the union was operating under a different set of rules from what workers in the private sector would have experienced.

And while the district got the union to give up its fabled free cosmetic surgery benefit, teachers will still have another four months to binge on free tummy tucks and botox injections at taxpayer expense.

All of these points would likely have come up in public discussion—if the public been allowed to see the contract before becoming signatories to it.

Taxpayers weren’t the only group to have their interests put on the back burner by the board. As BTF president Phil Rumore told The Buffalo News: “The biggest victory is that we reached a contract … Now perhaps we can start talking about kids rather than contracts.”

Shouldn’t the kids have been the teachers’ top concern all along?

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.